War Stories

Daydream Believers

Are the folks behind America’s national security strategy delusional?

The White House today issued its latest edition of The National Security Strategy of the United States of America—a biennial treatise mandated by Congress—and, reading it over, one can’t help but wonder if the authors are going through the bromidic motions or if they mean what they write. If it’s the former, cliché and contradiction are in order. If it’s the latter, and I suspect that’s the case (there’s too much impassioned rhetoric for it to have been drafted in someone’s sleep), then it marks the latest—and, in some ways, most unnerving—sign that our government is run by delusionary utopians, daydream believers who are marching us into, at worst, disaster and, at best, a boggy muddle.

The essence of the strategy, a flowery distillation of President George W. Bush’s own speeches on the subject, is stated up front:

It is the policy of the United States to seek and support democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world. In the world today, the fundamental character of regimes matters as much as the distribution of power among them. The goal of our statecraft is to help create a world of democratic, well-governed states that can meet the needs of their citizens and conduct themselves responsibly in the international system. This is the best way to provide enduring security for the American people.

It would be nice if democracy swept the planet. It would also be nice if people everywhere were trustworthy, loyal, helpful, and friendly. The operable question is: What do we do until the age of Aquarius?

Certainly, the promotion of democracy should be a goal of American foreign policy. But to make it the centerpiece invites trouble; hypocrisy, betrayal, disappointment, and delusion are inevitable. As for “statecraft” (literally, the art of conducting the affairs of state), that has always been—for any nation-state—about navigating the shoals of an often-dangerous world; you can try, while you’re at it, to reshape the contours of the continents; but, at least as a starting point, you have to survive and thrive in the world as it is.

The authors of this document, some of whom studied international relations in college and graduate school, know this frustrating reality. Sometimes they come close to acknowledging it. For instance, in Chapter 4, which deals with regional conflicts, the authors write,

The most effective long-term measure for conflict prevention and resolution is the promotion of democracy. … In the short-term, however, a timely offer by free nations of “good offices” or outside assistance can sometimes prevent conflicts or help resolve conflict once started.

This is precisely the point of tension that the authors elsewhere evade: How do you reconcile long-term goals and ideals with short-term necessities and interests? To put it in this specific context: What if preventing or resolving some conflict involves negotiating with—or even helping—a flagrantly undemocratic regime?

President Bush and those around him know the answer to this question. Hence his hand-holding stroll through the Crawford Ranch bluebonnets with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. Hence his soul-to-soul chats with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his respectful discussions with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, and various other tyrants and monarchs. A nation’s interests are not monolithic; they collide not only with its ideals but also with other interests. Bush needs the Saudis for access to oil, Putin for pressure on Iran’s plans to enrich uranium, the Chinese for their massive dollar-bailout, Musharraf for aid (even if wavering) on counterterrorism. You can argue about which way to go on these choices, but inarguably there are choices, and a document on national-security strategy is shallow to the point of irrelevance if it doesn’t recognize and confront them explicitly.

Look, for another example, at today’s big news: the Bush administration’s agreement to hold direct talks on the stability of Iraq with the leaders of Iran. In the White House national-security document, Iran’s government is denounced (correctly) as tyrannical, deceptive, dangerous, and (in a bit of hype) the state from which “[w]e may face no greater challenge.” Yet, in the real world, the same White House recognizes that we share interests—and might explore opportunities for mutual advantage—with even the most distasteful regimes. (Bush also opened talks with Iran, quietly and on a low level, shortly after 9/11, as both countries had an interest in ousting the Taliban from Afghanistan; Iran cut off the talks after Bush tagged it as part of the “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address.)

There’s another half-encouraging twist in this national-security document—an acknowledgement that countries in transition to democracy “can be prone to conflict and vulnerable to exploitation by terrorists.” This may be a bow to a recent, well- publicized book by professors Edward Mansfield and Jack Snyder, Electing to Fight, which argues that, while mature democracies tend not to fight one another (the premise of Bush’s policy to spread democracy), emerging democracies are the most war-prone regimes of all. The White House authors write of such regimes:

We will harness the tools of economic assistance, development aid, trade, and good governance to help ensure that new democracies are not burdened with economic stagnation or endemic corruption. … We will not abandon them before the transition is secure. … We will not let the challenges of democratic transition frighten us into clinging to the illusory stability of the authoritarian.

It’s good that the White House finally recognizes in theory that democracy, especially in its early phases, is not an unalloyed virtue; but what do these pledges of commitment mean in practice? U.S. economic assistance (except for disaster relief) has declined; even in Iraq, money for reconstruction projects has practically vanished.

Nor—more than a year after President Bush started pushing it as a main theme in his second inaugural address—have the White House authors quite worked out what they mean by freedom and democracy. They insist that the Bush administration has no desire to impose Western-style democracy on the rest of the world and that other countries’ democratic styles will be shaped by their own histories and cultures. And yet they also write: “In effective democracies, freedom is indivisible. Political, religious, and economic liberty advance together and reinforce each other.” Other required features of democracy they cite include equality, minority rights, civil liberties, an independent media, political parties, an independent judiciary, a competent police force, and a professional legal establishment. That sounds about right. But how do these things, put together, add up to anything but Western-style democracy? The push for global democracy is the push for countries to behave more like we behave and more in our interests. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but let’s face it squarely—if for no other reason than to understand why people in some countries, and not just their tyrannical leaders, seem reluctant to go along.

Another fallacy in this document is the tacit assumption that the United States dominates the planet to the extent it once dominated at least the western half. Among the tasks the authors say the United States must accomplish: “Ignite a new era of global economic growth through free markets and free trade.” Yet the United States is far from the only engine of growth these days; nor is it the only country with a key to ignite it. Among the threats the authors hold over other nations: “The more countries demonstrate that they treat their own citizens with respect and are committed to democratic principles, the closer and stronger their relationship with America is likely to be.” Yet a growing number of national leaders don’t care as much as they once did about this relationship; other countries, such as China, have come calling with aid and trade and the links that inexorably follow.

Finally, there is this line from the report’s introduction, signed by President Bush: “We seek to shape the world, not merely be shaped by it; to influence events for the better instead of being at their mercy.” To a degree, this statement is a truism, a defining feature of a global power (which we still are). But pressed a bit too far, it verges on not merely hubris but fantasy, a mistaken notion that the end of the Cold War left America in control of the whole world—when, in fact, it left much of the world elusive of anyone’s control. You need tools of great torque to get the world to turn as you want it to turn. But as we’ve learned in Iraq and elsewhere, that’s something we don’t have—not to the degree that we can use it as the fulcrum for a national-security strategy.